We’re living in an exciting time that is undergoing a dynamic change in societal norms and values. In San Antonio, Alamo Colleges is leading an evolution of new ideas by introducing core concepts like sustainability and pushing clean energy initiatives as the city prepares for an influx of 1 million people by 2040.
The Alamo Community College District (ACCD) includes five community colleges – St. Philip’s College (SPC), San Antonio College (SAC), Palo Alto College (PAC), Northwest Vista College (NVC), Northeast Lakeview College (NLC) – based around San Antonio that supported close to 60,000 students in 2014. The Facilities Department at Alamo Colleges is responsible for managing operations across nearly 200 buildings. Each building has distinct energy demands, as Alamo Colleges offers programs that range from engineering to performing arts. However, the ACCD is redesigning the way buildings and operations use energy. Alamo Colleges is developing a more sustainable energy system that optimizes resources and explores opportunities to make its energy mix cleaner, and more efficient and resilient.
One way the ACCD is doing this is by investing in solar power. Solar is a reliable power source for San Antonio, which receives an average of 224 days of sun annually, according to 2012 National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration comparative climatic data. By installing solar panels, Alamo Colleges offsets the amount of electricity it takes from the grid, which is a mix of clean sources of energy like solar and wind, but also environmentally harmful fossil fuels like natural gas and coal.
I was hired as an Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) Climate Corps fellow at Alamo Colleges, where I began working in June. My role was to assess opportunities for clean energy growth to keep Alamo Colleges on track to reach its carbon neutral goal by 2050. I analyzed the performance of our current solar systems and used financial modeling to propose new projects ranging from increasing energy efficiency to investing in new solar applications.
While many people associate solar with rooftop applications or picture massive solar farms in the desert, there are actually myriad applications where solar energy can be used to support system operations. Alamo Colleges has taken initiative to do so, recognizing that solar doesn’t just come in one shape or form. From solar calculators to solar carts, solar power plays a salient role in building a robust sustainable energy system at Alamo Colleges. Below are ten ways our campuses are using solar.
- Solar Arrays: Across three campuses Alamo Colleges has installed 3398 solar panels with over 600-kilowatts of capacity on three rooftops and one garage. In less than a year, these panels have generated enough electricity to supply 926 homes in San Antonio for a year.
The first solar array was installed in 2011 at St. Philip’s College (SPC). At its time of completion, the 400-kilowatt array was San Antonio’s largest solar photovoltaic (PV) system. Annually, the system generates an estimated 747-Megawatt hours of electricity, saving Alamo Colleges nearly $60,000.
At San Antonio College (SAC) there are two rooftop solar systems. First, at the Scobee Education Center, Alamo Colleges’ multipurpose science hub, there is a 33-kilowatt array designed for high visibility and accessibility. The second array is at William R. Sinkin Eco Centro, Alamo Colleges’ community environmental hub, and it is the only building that at peak produces more electricity than the building itself uses. This information is displayed on screen monitoring the building’s energy use inside the Eco Centro facility. The last solar array is at Northwest Vista College (NVC) which installed a 154-kilowatt solar system on its parking garage.
- Solar Bikes: Alamo Colleges has put biking at the forefront of its sustainable transportation initiatives and is preparing to introduce B-Cycle, the city’s bike share program, to SAC. This program will allow members to grab a bike and return it at any of the 55 stations throughout San Antonio connecting SAC to downtown and nearby trending locations. How does B-Cycle use solar? The B-Cycle stations use a freestanding solar system that allows you to check the bike in and out, which means the stations can operate independently from the grid. The small battery pack that stores the solar energy generated during the day allows these bike stations to operate through the night.
- Electric Vehicle Charging Stations: Alamo Colleges offers free charging for electric vehicles on four of its campuses. At SAC’s Eco Centro building there are two charging stations with four ports. During the day the solar panels on this building produce more energy than the building itself uses. Since the charging stations are connected to the building, you can charge your electric vehicle using solar energy, making you carbon neutral as you cruise around downtown. This is exactly what electric cars were doing this past weekend when Eco Centro hosted San Antonio Drive Electric Day organized by Alamo City Electric Auto Association. The event brought together over 30 electric vehicles and owners from San Antonio who proudly showcased their clean automobiles and plugged into Eco Centro’s charging stations to keep up a continuous cycle of free test drives for community members.
Solar Emergency Phone Stanchions: For safety reasons, Alamo Colleges installed blue emergency phone stanchions around its campuses’ parking lots. Some of these emergency phone stanchions are attached to a small 80-watt solar panel and four batteries, making it a stand-alone system capable of operating around the clock.
- Solar Car Ports: Alamo Colleges recently designed a solar carport that will be installed at Eco Centro at SAC. This carport addition will allow cars to park under a canopy of solar panels covering eight parking spaces. This not only provides shade to the parked cars, but it repurposes energy that would have been absorbed by asphalt into something that can be used for building operations. It also reduces an immediate need to blast air conditioning, a significant energy user, as visitors get back into their cars.
- Solar Bus Ports: Two highly visible solar bus ports, made up of 24 panels altogether, are located coincident to the Scobee Education Center at SAC. As students wait to be picked up or dropped off, they can seek shade under the bus ports. The energy generated and offset from the Scobee Education Center rooftop panel array and bus ports are collectively displayed on three television monitors located inside the Scobee Education Center.
- Solar Studies 101: In addition to the solar installations around the Alamo Colleges’ campuses, St. Philip’s College actively prepares its students to enter the emerging clean energy field through its Green Jobs Training Institute. This program recently won a sustainability leadership award, the Bill Sinkin Solar Technology Award, for its work granted by the City of San Antonio. The institute educates and trains its students in solar installation and maintenance. Each year, students are expected to assemble and disassemble a 255-watt rooftop solar system located adjacent to the 400-kilowatt solar array. Students monitor the performance of the installed system through a digital viewer.
- Student Solar Hydroponic Project: Engineering students at Alamo Colleges are working together to develop a solar hydroponic growing system. This project, an example of vertical agriculture, is hooked up to four solar panels that supply the energy needed to circulate water, nutrients, ventilation and lighting through the hydroponic unit making it possible to grow microgreens. The project is being expanded to include sun trackers and students will have the opportunity to grow leafy greens like kale and lettuce in the near future. The sun trackers allow the panels to move with the sun throughout the day optimizing the panels’ exposure to sunlight.
- Solar Electric Cart Undergraduate Research Project: A team of eight engineering and chemistry students along with two faculty members worked together this summer to convert a broken gas utility cart scheduled to be salvaged into a solar-electric vehicle for Alamo Colleges. The solar cart project, funded through a National Science Foundation Louis Stokes Alliances for Minority Participation CIMA Alliance grant along with donations from Alamo Colleges, uses four batteries and two 230-watt solar panels. It operated for the first time on September 15, 2015. It will be used to showcase renewable energy technology and increase students’ interest in STEM careers.
- Solar Calculators: Even small items like a calculator use solar energy. Last year, Alamo Colleges purchased over 200 scientific calculators that operate using solar power backed by a small battery.
Efforts to incorporate solar into Alamo Colleges’ energy mix doesn’t stop here. Alamo Colleges continues to explore opportunities to introduce solar on small to large scales. The Colleges support its students, pursuing varied education tracks, who are vested in groundbreaking research projects that incorporate clean energy.
Additionally, right now, I am working with Alamo Colleges to assessing what other buildings could support an array, assessing not only each building’s sunlight exposure, but the age of the roof, what interferences exist, and how to make this project even better than past projects. We are comparing solar panel product performance, looking at the difference between n-type and p-type silicon solar cells, and exploring the opportunities for incorporating sun trackers or storage into the design. Alamo Colleges anticipates positive growth and projects like these help ensure the campuses grow sustainably.
*Top image: One of the solar bus ports located in front of the Scobee Education Center at San Antonio College. Photo by Jillian Corley.